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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

Berkeley: Does Being a ‘Superwoman’ Protect African American Women’s Health?

The stereotype of the “strong black woman” is more than just a cultural trope: Many black women in America report feeling pressured to act like superwomen, projecting themselves as strong, self-sacrificing, and free of emotion to cope with the stress of race- and gender-based discrimination in their daily lives.

“[Women] talked about every day walking out of their houses and putting on their ‘armor’ in anticipation of experiencing racial discrimination,” said Dr. Amani M. Allen, associate professor of community health sciences and epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, describing focus groups she led with African American women in the San Francisco Bay Area. “What they were really describing was this idea of being strong black women and feeling the need to prepare for the racial discrimination they expect on a daily basis; and that preparation and anticipation adds to their overall stress burden.”

Dr. Allen is lead author of a new study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences that explores whether different facets of being a strong black woman, which researchers sometimes refer to as “superwoman schema,” ultimately protect women from the negative health impacts of racial discrimination — or create further harm.

The new study revealed that, in the face of high levels of racial discrimination, some aspects of the superwoman persona seemed to diminish the negative health effects of chronic racial discrimination. But others facets of the persona, such as having an intense drive to succeed and feeling an obligation to help others, seemed to be detrimental to health, further exacerbating the deleterious health effects of the chronic stress associated with racial discrimination.

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